At least 50,000 smartphones, including those used by politicians, journalists, and human rights activists, were compromised by the Pegasus spyware, a program deployed by government agencies to track targets and exfiltrate their data.
The list of compromised devices was released by human rights group Amnesty International, and Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based non-profit organization.
Among those compromised with Pegasus spyware were fourteen heads of state, including Moroccan King Mohammed VI, French president Emmanuel Macron, Iraqi president Barham Salih, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, and European Council President Charles Michel. Other targets included recently slain Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Birto, and Hanan Elatr, widow of journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was murdered and dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Pegasus is the product of NSO Group, an Israeli software company with the stated goal of helping “licensed government intelligence and law-enforcement agencies lawfully address the most dangerous issues in today’s world.” The spyware can be installed on both Android and iOS-based devices via SMS, WhatsApp, and iMessage platforms and is capable of harvesting a wide range of data including emails, phone calls, contacts, and GPS location data.
NSO Group has drawn heavy criticism in the past for assisting authoritarian governments with bad human rights records to track journalists and activists. Saudi Arabia is one such client.
“We have long known that activists and journalists are targets of this surreptitious phone-hacking – but it’s clear that even those at the highest levels of power cannot escape the sinister spread of NSO’s spyware. NSO Group can no longer hide behind the claim that its spyware is only used to fight crime – it appears that Pegasus is also the spyware of choice for those wanting to snoop on foreign governments,” said Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard.
NSO has dismissed the recent news stories as being “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories.”